Michael Sandel and Sam Harris on meritocracy

This podcast is well worth listening too – Sandel and Harris frame the problems with meritocracy well even of they don’t quite get to a strong answer for another way of doing things.

Here’s a snippet:

Sam Harris: The paradox here is that the thing that’s under our control, the environment, if we perfectly timed that, if we gave everyone from utero onwards all of the same environmental benefits – this is magic, we obviously can’t do this, but even if we could,

– where that would land us is in this dystopian counterfactual world where now what we’ll have to spectate on are the massive differences in genetic endowments.


If you perfectly secure the environment against disadvantage, then all you will see is a kind of tyranny of genetic differences, and we’ll be in some kind of Gattaca-like dystopia, and that would be if with the best of intentions we could create perfectly equitable and enriched environments for everybody‚Ķ It almost seems like a kind of mirage to figure out how to actually solve this problem [even] given a perfect ability to do so.

Michael Sandel: I think what the mirage-like feel of this thought experiment brings out is that even a perfect meritocracy would not be a just society, because the winners would still be determined by factors that were not their own doing. And yet – to make matters worse – the closer we came to providing truly equal opportunity, the greater the tendency for the successful to believe that their success was their own doing. The greater the tendency to forget or overlook or deny the luck or good fortune that helped them on their way, and the greater the tendency to look down on those who are flourishing less and to say that their failure must be their fault.

Michael Sandel on Making Sense with Sam Harris #221: Success, Failure and the Common Good

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